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| [Forwards deleted, contributed by Judy Reich]
| 
| By MARK ROBICHAUX Staff Reporter of THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
| 
| MORTON, Ill. -- Ponder this: Will a pumpkin, as it nears the speed of
| sound, turn into pie in the sky?
| 
| In a machine shop in a sea of cornfields here in a place that calls itself
| the Pumpkin Capital of the World, this is not a theoretical question. For
| months now, a team of volunteers has worked earnestly on an effort to send
| a gourd soaring at Mach I.
| 
| Their invention is an 18-ton, 100-foot cannon made of 10-inch-diameter
| plastic pipe, powered by compressed air and mounted on an old cement
| mixer. Dubbed the Aludium Q36 Pumpkin Modulator, it has already set a
| world distance record, flinging a pumpkin 2,710 feet -- at a velocity of
| more than 600 miles per hour, literally faster than some speeding bullets.
| 
| At the speed of sound, minimally about 750 mph, the distance record could
| easily be shattered, assuming the pumpkin doesn't shatter first. For this
| team of self-described "high-tech rednecks," this is a matter of some
| urgency and pride, says Matt Parker, a Morton businessman and a team
| leader. For the team is, at the moment, the undisputed champion of the
| arcane sport known colloquially to its practitioners as "punkin'
| chunkin'."
| 
| On Nov. 1, all eyes will be on the Q36 when it defends its title as World
| Champion Punkin' Chunker in Lewes, a small town on the Delaware coast.
| 
| For the past 11 years, pumpkin tossers, dragging all manner of
| contraptions, have converged there to vie for bragging rights in a variety
| of pumpkin-tossing categories -- human powered, centrifugal, catapult and
| air cannons. Sponsored by the Roadhouse Steak Joint, a Lewes restaurant,
| the contest derives from an anvil-throwing game once played here; how the
| anvil evolved into a pumpkin seems to be lost to history.
| 
| The modern contest's rules are clear, however: Pumpkins must weigh 8 to
| 10 pounds, leave the machine intact and not be propelled by explosives.
| 
| Like the rapid advance in, say, computer technology, pumpkin-tossing
| prowess has improved exponentially since the first contest in 1986
| produced a throw of 50 feet. By 1989, large-scale centrifugals,
| essentially giant slings, were launching pumpkins more than 600 feet, a
| mark that had doubled by 1993. In 1994, the first serious air cannon
| appeared and shot a pumpkin more than 2,500 feet. A Delaware-made air
| cannon named the "Mello Yello" beat that mark with a 2,655-foot shot in
| 1995, only to be bested by the Q36 last year.
| 
| Of course the cannons, though they have the longest range, don't attract
| all the attention.  Last year, a catapult competitor rigged up two
| telephone poles planted in the ground, fitted huge rubber bands to them
| and fired a pumpkin from this Paul Bunyanesque slingshot -- pulled taut
| by a power winch -- 493 feet.
| 
| Still, the serious pumpkin tossers gravitate to the cannons, and here in
| this small Illinois town, pumpkins are serious business. Area farms supply
| about 80% of the nation's canned pumpkin through Nestle SA's Libby's plant
| here. When the chamber of commerce director, Scott Witzig, heard about
| the Lewes contest in early 1996, he issued a call to arms at the chamber's
| annual dinner: Build a gun to bring honor to Morton's pumpkin heritage.
| 
| The challenge was taken up by Mr. Parker, a polite, 28-year-old vice
| president at Parker Fabrication Inc., a family-owned company that builds
| industrial-exhaust systems. Soon, he and some tinkering friends were
| swapping sketches on napkins in coffee shops. "It sounded kind of dumb at
| first," he says, "but pretty soon, that's all we talked about."
| 
| In a month's time, a group formed and built a machine largely from scrap
| parts, often working into the early morning at the shop of Rod Litwiller,
| a crew member. Friends and neighbors stopped in to help. Only when a crude
| version of the machine was unveiled at the Morton pumpkin festival in
| September last year did the builders get an idea of the machine's power.
| 
| The first shot flew out of sight into a cornfield. "We thought, 'This has
| potential,' " says Chuck Heerde, a 32-year-old Parker employee and crew
| member.
| 
| High Expectations
| 
| The Q36, when erected, resembles a crane. It is hand-loaded from the rear,
| aimed using hydraulic cylinders and a turret that was once an old cement
| mixer and fired with the push of a red button that releases a charge of
| compressed air. Painted military green, the gun was named after a weapon
| used by Marvin the Martian, a pint-sized alien in a Warner Bros. cartoon.
| 
| Ferocious as the Q36 looked, the Morton pumpkin crew still wasn't sure
| what made a pumpkin fly farthest. Too much pressure too fast, and the
| pumpkin bursts apart in the barrel. Too slow, and velocity suffers. Pat
| Parker, Matt Parker's father, contacted Max Teasdale, a friend who teaches
| engineering mechanics at Bradley University in nearby Peoria. An avid
| skeet shooter, Mr. Teasdale said he had just completed a ballistics
| analysis of shotgun pellets. "I asked him: 'Can you modify that for a
| 10-pound pumpkin?'" says the elder Mr. Parker. "He was silent for
| second. Then he smiled."
| 
| Mr. Teasdale modified the ballistics program to compensate for a pumpkin
| flying through an 80-foot barrel in hopes of plotting the best trajectory.
| The computer tabulates, among other things, the weight and number of
| sections in a pumpkin (usually 10), the pressure and temperature of the air
| in the tank, the barometric pressure, pumpkin spin and barrel inclination.
| Still, Mr. Teasdale concedes that "pumpkins are an unreliable projectile."
| 
| Undeterred, the Morton crew packed up the Q36 and hitched it to "The
| Blackbird," a black and silver GMC bus fitted with a diesel engine and
| front end welded together by Mr.  Heerde. When the Q36 rumbled into the
| fairgrounds in Lewes for last year's contest, however, more experienced
| cannon makers were prepared to blow it off.  But, after its first pumpkin
| blew apart in the barrel, the Q36 blew the competition away.  Its winning
| shot of 2,710 feet broke the existing record by 55 feet.
| 
| It also narrowly missed a Ford Mustang in the parking lot. This could have
| been serious: In a demonstration earlier in the day, the Q36 had blown a
| pumpkin-size hole in a half-inch thick sheet of plywood 500 feet away.
| 
| Giving No Ground
| 
| Word of the Q36 has spread like pumpkin butter. On the Punkin' Chunkin'
| Web site, one reviewer called the debut of the Q36 "awe-inspiring." Harry
| "Captain Speed" Lackhove, a Delaware competitor whose Mello Yello cannon
| held the previous world record, has vowed to come out of retirement to
| challenge the Q36 at this year's contest. Mr.  Lackhove, 72, says he is
| cooking up a high-tech firing device based upon the designs of a
| California race-car mechanic and predicts, "We expect to set a record that
| won't fall for years." Which is why the Q36 crew vows to send a pumpkin
| flying at Mach I soon. But Mr.  Teasdale, the physics professor, tempers
| the crew's ambitions with reality. Compressed air and computer-aided
| trajectories can send the pumpkin sailing just up to the sound barrier,
| he says. But he doesn't think it can be broken without the boost of an
| explosive charge. And no one quite knows if a pumpkin can stay intact at
| the speed of sound.
| 
| Still, practice makes perfect. On a recent fall afternoon, the Q36 crew
| took the cannon to Goshen, Ind., for a rare public demonstration at the
| grand opening of a subdivision called Clover Trails. A horn sounded across
| the cornfields as the barrel of the Q36 rose ominously and, with a loud
| "foop," fired a pumpkin. This was a low-power shot, and it sailed perhaps
| 1,200 feet. Soon, cars pulled over and a crowd of about 100 materialized.
| Loud applause and laughter erupted after every shot.
| 
| Between shots, a farmer walked up and asked, "How far can she go?" "We
| can put a hole in that silo over there," said Mr. Heerde.  "Oh, don't do
| that," the farmer said. "That's my silo."
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